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Biden attracts GOP jeers over debt limit, while pushing unity

Wide-ranging speech featured themes to come for 2024

President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., before delivering the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., before delivering the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Whether or not President Joe Biden was intending to bait Republicans into jeering his call for raising the debt limit without preconditions, he got them.

When Biden made a familiar argument that some Republicans wanted to sunset Social Security and Medicare or at least require Congress to act on recurring reauthorizations, exclamations could be heard from the Republican side of the House chamber, including from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who could be heard referring to the president as a liar.

“Some Republicans, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” Biden said as the clamor grew. “I’m not saying it’s a majority.”

As GOP lawmakers appeared to reject the idea, Biden said: “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security, Medicare is off the books now. … All right, right, we got unanimity.”

Biden also faced shouts from the GOP side when he spoke about fentanyl while urging Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul. After one member was heard to yell “it’s your fault” in reference to fentanyl, Biden said that if Congress wouldn’t pass the full package, it should provide additional equipment and officers to secure the border. That got Speaker Kevin McCarthy, seated behind him, to stand and applaud.

The president opened his second State of the Union address applauding bipartisan accomplishments from the last Congress in what seemed like an unofficial kickoff to a 2024 reelection bid, and it seemed for a while that the biggest deviation from the script would be when he opened his speech in typical Biden fashion, giving shoutouts to congressional leaders and dignitaries including first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff, suggesting that the first lady would be heading to Arizona to watch her Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Sunday, but he would not.

The president seemed well aware that the public may not be seeing the effects of legislation enacted in the last Congress, and that inflation is continuing to affect the bottom lines of families across the country.

He touted laws he signed to provide funding for infrastructure, semiconductor production, and benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

“These projects will put hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding our highways, bridges, railroads, tunnels, ports and airports, clean water, and high-speed internet, all across America,” Biden said of the infrastructure law. “Urban. Suburban. Rural. Tribal.”

The president thanked members for voting for that infrastructure law — and that he would make sure projects got funding even in the home states and districts of the law’s opponents.

“We’ll fund these projects. And I’ll see you at the groundbreaking,” he said of those opponents.

Biden announced new efforts to strengthen enforcement of Buy America provisions for the various construction projects.

“Tonight, I’m also announcing new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in America. Made in America, ” he said. “Lumber, glass, drywall, fiber optic cables.”

He added that “on my watch, American roads, American bridges, and American highways are going to be made with American products as well.”

He touted a $35 monthly federal cap for insulin for Medicare patients, and called for it to be expanded to other patients, an effort which Republicans blocked as part of the 2022 budget reconciliation package.

Noting some had called for repealing that law, he promised to veto legislation that would increase prescription drug costs.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress,” Biden said. “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”

The address was typically wide-ranging, with Biden taking significant time speaking about guests in the audience, including the parents of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten to death by police officers in Memphis, Tenn. Biden spoke of how he and his wife never needed to have “The Talk” with their own children that Black and Brown parents have about interactions with law enforcement.

“When police officers or departments violate the public’s trust, we must hold them accountable,” Biden said.

The foreign policy portion of the speech came toward the end; Biden recalled that last year’s address came shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and that this year’s speech comes with the war still underway.

Delivering a message to China, the president alluded to the surveillance balloon that traveled across the United States before being shot down once it reached the Atlantic Ocean.

“I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world,” Biden said. “But make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”